Realizing a Theology of Art

This year I have curated an array of religious art, Byzantine in particular, which I keep in my dorm. Foreign to the Evangelical eye, my icons draw frowns and raised eyebrows, comments of being ‘creepy’ and ‘funny-looking’, or often simply the confused question: “what is that on your wall?” 

To my iconoclast friends: I am sorry, but I take delight in my little collection. I like the paintings for their color and symbolism, and how they occupy my room with depictions of the sacred. And I like talking about them with others; having discovered such immense beauty in old Christian art, sharing is a joy. Perhaps most controversially, I like what art does for my soul. When hackles are raised in response to this, I sympathize, for from the austerity of our tradition we have inherited an infecund theology of beauty. For some, faith is entirely estranged from the arts. But how strange this is! The notion itself is a contradiction, as art and spirituality are by nature united. 

Many of our world’s great places of pilgrimage are sanctuaries of visual beauty: think the Louvre, the Met, and the Hermitage. These hold not merely a feast for the eyes but for the soul. A masterpiece brings the mind to a still, leaving one entranced, rendered half-dumb. An encounter with the sublime can imbue a room with a religious atmosphere. This is, of course, the very reason why some wish to bereave the Christian life of art. “A distraction!” they say, “idolatry!” Some critiques may be warranted; truly, bad art can endanger our souls. Yet there is still hope that we might welcome a renewed sense of art into our spiritual lives. 

Christian art is the Gospel in visible form—“books for the illiterate” as John Damascene argued. This is why we often teach children Scripture through illustrations. However, Christian art is not limited to stained glass and mosaic, and what’s more, its usefulness is available to the spiritually mature. The work of Christians on earth self-evidently includes seeking that which is transcendent: the Good, True, and Beautiful, those things that steer us to God, the Transcendent Himself.

Our God is the loftiest ideal of beauty, meaning therefore that all Beauty is God’s Beauty. All true art (that is, all that is truly beautiful) belongs to Christ. Consequently, it belongs to Christians, Christ’s co-heirs. Beauty is not under the monopoly of the world, it actually belongs to Heaven. And when I receive art as the plunder of Christ’s conquest, it becomes a tool by which my faith can mature. When I gaze, awestruck, upon painted imagery, I can call it beautiful only because Christ has come to redeem Creation and show me what beauty is. The canvas and its paint are being made new; the Creator is making His creation lovely. 

Only the Christian can see art as Holy—we see the loveliness of Christ within it, and when we ponder this loveliness, God fills our souls. I can even call the art of an unbeliever beautiful just as easily as the art of a Christian, if it is true this beauty comes from Christ himself. 

Has Christ redeemed the eye? Then he has redeemed sight. Is Christ beautiful? Then he loves beauty. Are we co-heirs with Christ? Then our synergy with God must bring with it a spiritual calculus to love that which is beautiful, for the inheritance of Christ is the restoration of all of creation to a state of transcendence. It is the remaking of all to be good, to be true, and to be beautiful. 

Categories: Arts

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